Striking a balance with North policy

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Striking a balance with North policy

Despite persistent provocations from North Korea, President Park Geun-hye has maintained a delicate balance between criticism and a conciliatory approach to the reclusive regime, during her first 100 days in office.

Her slogan for North Korean affairs is known as “trustpolitik,” or a “trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula.” It is a two-track policy to press Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear arsenal but resume inter-Korean interaction, including humanitarian assistance for the North.

During her campaign last year, Park vowed to meet with the 20-something North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which seemed possible since she was one of the few South Koreans who met with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, back in 2002.

Her approach to Pyongyang was distinctively different from her predecessor Lee Myung-bak’s, who took a stern approach in the aftermath of the two military provocations from North Korea - the sinking of the South’s naval ship Cheonan, which the North is suspected of torpedoing, and the deadly shelling on the South’s front-line island Yeonpyeong.

Unlike Lee’s position on freezing inter-Korean interaction, Park said she was willing to provide humanitarian aid for North Korean children or other underprivileged people in the impoverished regime, regardless of political circumstances.

However, she also refused the unconditional support for Pyongyang, which two former liberal presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, dubbed the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement.

She has called for an end to “the vicious cycle” of repeated North Korean provocations and subsequent aid from the South or sanctions from the international community to ease the situation.

Instead, Park took her own third path - denouncing North Korea’s provocations, including its nuclear-weapons program and urging the regime to return to the negotiation table at the same time.

Hong Yong-pyo, the presidential secretary for unification affairs, said at a Jeju forum on Saturday that her trustpolitik is a mixed version of the policies of two former presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Lee Myung-bak. Her policy has a more softened stance than Lee’s, but it’s tougher than Kim’s.

“The trust-building process emphasizes strong national security,” Hong said. “If there is a provocation from the North, making North Korea aware of their faults leads to building mutual trust. At the same time, if the situation gets better, we should build trust through strengthening ties with Pyongyang.”

She also successfully presented her “trustpolitik” strategy to her U.S. counterpart Barack Obama during her visit to Washington.

At a joint press conference on May 7, Obama expressed his support for her trust-building measures, saying “President Park’s approach is very compatible with my approach.”

However, despite her efforts to reach out to Pyongyang, the inter-Korean relations are apparently deteriorating.

When she was inaugurated in February, military tensions ran high between the two Koreas in the wake of the North’s successful long-range rocket launch in December, which prompted widespread international condemnation.

The North also tested its third-ever nuclear device on Feb. 12, about two weeks before her inauguration, triggering a fresh round of tougher United Nations sanctions against the impoverished regime.

Amid escalating tensions, Seoul and Washington carried out their joint annual military drills starting in March, despite protests from Pyongyang. In an unusual move, the two allies brought state-of-the-art weapons to this year’s drill, which apparently unnerved Pyongyang.

At the end of March, upset by the ongoing military drills and the toughened sanctions, Pyongyang eventually cut off all military hotlines with Seoul. It even announced it would nullify the 1953 armistice agreement, warning a second Korean war could occur anytime.

Provocations continued to escalate in April, with a series of provocative threats and blusters from Pyongyang on an almost-daily basis.

On April 3, North Korea imposed an entry ban on all Southern workers into a jointly-run inter-Korean enterprise, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and pulled out its 53,000 Northern workers from the park.

Failing resumption of the operation, Seoul also pulled out all of its workers in May, an effective shutdown of the 8-year-old symbol of the Sunshine Policy.

Unlike her pledge to expand inter-Korean interactions, Park now sees that all of the previous inter-Korean business and projects were suspended. The Mount Kumgang Resort is still closed, since the shooting incident of a female South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier in 2008. All government-level talks were halted since the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010.

In the midst of growing concerns over the closed Kaesong complex, the Unification Ministry officially proposed working-level talks to resolve the matter with Pyongyang on May 14.

But North Korea turned down her proposal for a talk, calling it “a despicable trick.”

Despite public dismay over the closure of the complex, however, Park didn’t abandon her principle of the two-track approach. When the Southern workers left the Kaesong complex, she publicly denounced North Korea, saying “no one in the world would be willing to invest in the complex again.”

While the tug-of-war with North Korea is expected to continue, Park is preparing for her important summit with China, North Korea’s closest ally and the biggest trading partner. She will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the month, and the matter of North Korea’s provocations and the recent repatriation of defectors from Laos to the regime are expected to be discussed.

“I have had contact with President Xi Jinping for a long time,” she said during a luncheon with reporters on Friday. “I would like to have a heart-to-heart talk on various issues.

“The matter of North Korea’s nuclear weapons heavily relies on China’s roles,” she said.


By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr ]

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